Top Ten: Things the Metro Taught Me

Happy 100th Post, Dear Readers! What better way to celebrate than with a well overdue Top Ten?

You’d be surprised where you can pick up life lessons. Every single one of us takes something we do or see every day for granted, that’s a given. I’m in the second half of my semester abroad, I walk the streets of Paris every day, and that’s coming to a close, so I’m taking that for granted right now. One thing we need to learn to do as good, high-functioning human beings is to make the most out of the lives we live in this very moment. The world is trying to teach us a little something every moment of every day, and it’s up to us to pick up on those little lessons, pay attention, learn something, and implement what we’ve just learned into the rest of our lives.

All of that philosophical mumbo-jumbo aside, what in the world have I learned recently, and where are the minuscule nooks and crannies that I’ve been looking for this knowledge?

Look no further than our good old friend RATP. The Parisian Metro. The Metropolitan. Sans blague. I’m not stretching this either. I have learned 10 key Life Lessons from the metro since I’ve been living in Paris. Well… okay, not all of the things I’ve learned have effectively happened to me, but they’ve happened to people around me. A couple things on the list have happened to my friends, but I heard about them. I realize I’ve already done a post all about the metro (shoot, it was a Top Ten too), but this one’s a little different. Sometimes you have to go deeper into the metro, and look under the strapontins for the beauty in life… and hopefully that beauty in life is not actually a sleeping hobo… at least we think he’s only sleeping…

10. When You Need an Extra Moment… Use Your Head! (or a can)
The Metro can only leave the station when all of its doors are closed. Those doors shut pretty forcibly too… there are little stickers on the doors with a little rabbit with it’s paw stuck in the door that warn you to not stick your fingers in the doors because they’ll get “pinched.” There’s a buzzer that sounds for three seconds before the doors on each train slam shut, so you’re often forced to make a split second decision “do I get on this train, or wait for the next one?” I’ve had to make that decision a few times, usually during rush hour when the trains look like this:

So what do you do if you need more time to make that decision? If you’re my friend Rouge, and you’ve stuck some money in a vending machine to get a soda a minute before the train came, so you’re now faced with the decision of getting on the train and losing two euro, or getting your soda and catching the next train… running out of time here… Solution: attempt to get into the metro head first so the doors slam shut on your noggin which sends your friends already on the train into a fit of laughter, rendering them physically incapable of helping you. Better solution: Stick an empty can in the track where the doors shut. This happened right in front of me, the doors shut on the can, I cracked up, the doors opened again, a woman got up and kicked the can out of the car, the doors shut, and the train left the station. Moral of the story… use your brain to solve a problem so things (like metro doors) don’t slam shut on your head.

9. Personal Space: Fiction
It’s safe to say that the American idea of personal space is “larger” than the European one. We can be pretty sure that personal space doesn’t exist in the picture above. I’m lucky enough to live relatively close to the terminus (terminal) points of the two metro lines I live by, so when I get on the train, it’s usually empty enough for me to grab a seat. The seats on the metro are reasonably sized, however, I’m lying if I say I haven’t been… sat on. I’m not joking. This has happened twice. Women have not only taken the seat next to me on the metro, they’ve taken part of my seat… and part of me in it. No really, I had no use for that part of my hip. It’s okay Madame, you can use my butt as a cushion too, there’s definitely enough to go around, no need to ask. I suppose it’s one thing to be crammed up against someone like a bunch of sardines in a can, it’s definitely another to think you’ve escaped that by sitting down only to be… sat on… and not in the way of actually sitting on someone’s lap and sharing the seat (that comes later). It’s also another thing entirely when you deal with the begging musicians on the train. I didn’t mind them all that much up until about last week. Why? They always got on a different part of the car in direct relation to where I was. Sure, they’d walk over to me when they were done with their sets and brandish their cups, but I could turn up my headphones if they were bad or out of tune (or both), or I could listen if I wanted to. What changed my tune (literally)? Dang accordion player came through my door (and he didn’t have to use his head or a can), and my head was at accordion level. The migraine that followed was significantly less than entertaining. Regardless, in the metro (and at other points and times in life, like elevators), you have to let go of your need for personal space. It doesn’t exist once you swipe your Navigo or scan your ticket. Especially not during rush hour.

8. Pay Attention to the World Around You
People always have different strategies for going about their daily lives, even just for walking. I always used to look down at the ground when I walked simply because I had a knack for tripping on anything and everything. In the world of RATP, it pays to constantly scan your entire viewing plane, what you can see in your peripheral vision, what’s in front of you, what’s above you, and who’s around you. There are TV monitors all over every station that post traffic updates, everything from “a traveler on ___ line got sick and traffic is stopped” to “the train broke down on ____ line going ____ direction” and if you’re not paying attention, you won’t see them, so you won’t know what’s going on, and you wouldn’t be able to work around the minor hiccups. Most of the stations are underground (at least part if not all of them), so it’s always good to look up every once in a while to make sure you’re not walking under an area that’s dripping from rain above-ground. Had I not been relatively alert and paying attention to my surroundings a couple times, I would have been pick pocketed recently. The metro hits you with the worst consequences for the simplest actions (like getting your wallet stolen simply because your iPod was too loud), so it’s a great microcosm for real-life. If you don’t pay attention to everything you do, you’ll miss out on the best parts of life, or you’ll suffer the consequences of glazing over important details.

7. Life is Always Better with a Soundtrack
Most people in the metro have headphones in. For some, it’s to mask the screeching of the wheels on the tracks. For others, it’s to get better acquainted with all of those new songs we’ve just downloaded from iTunes. I’m usually a mix of both categories Either way, life is always a little bit better with something in the background (For the record, I have “Elle T’A Eu” by Disiz off of Extra-Lucide on as I write this). Think about it, when was the last time you saw a movie with no music in the background? Never. When you go a “hip” café, do they have music in the background or not? They usually do. If you think background is overrated, do me (and yourself) a favor, and go pull up a fast-paced action scene from a movie, and put it on mute. Not the same without the score in the background, right? Don’t get me wrong, it’s always good to follow #8, but you can definitely do that and have someone serenade you through your day. Sometimes it’s just more fun to go through life with a song in your head, regardless if the song is in your head via a pair of headphones, or if that song in your head is playing from your heart.

6. You Are Only As Fast As the Slow-Poke in Front of You
This is my metro-modification of “You’re only as strong as your weakest link.” Perhaps this applies for driving too… there’s only so much dodging in and out of traffic you can do before you get boxed in. Walking through the stations can be a chore (especially through the transfer stations), it’s much worse when there’s a horribly large amount of people aimlessly meandering through life in your way. The metro is definitely not the place to stop and smell the roses (that’s not the lesson here, there are no roses, just stinky hobos). Most people will attempt to take the escalators in the metro if they’re around, so you can take the stairs to try to get ahead of some of the traffic… but it all comes down to one thing: when you’re surrounded by senior citizens with canes, you become one when it comes to walking speed. The point is that you can complain about it, or you can leave your house at the appropriate time and make sure you’re never in a rush so that if you get caught in a grandma shuffle, you’re still going to get to where you need to be on time, and you can move on… a little slower than you’d like to, but you’re still moving on. It’s nice to be able to move at your own speed, so do it when you can, but sometimes you’re going to be forced to move at the speed of the people around you, and it’s much better to do that with a smile than a grimace.

5. You’re Nothing But A Number (for now)
You lose your identity for the small amount of time that you spend on the metro. No one knows your name, where you work, who your significant other is (or if you have one unless that’s made known by a ring on a particular finger), or much else about you. To some, this anonymity is refreshing, but to others, it’s almost troubling. I’m never going to know the name of the man that failed miserably at pickpocketing me on November 1st, or why he felt the need to attempt to steal my money. He’s never going to know my name, nor will he know that he misread my appearance when he thought that I had much of anything in my wallet. Especially in times of rush hour, we’re just complex combinations of carbon and other matter that take up a little too much space to leave everyone else cramped. That act of cramping opens a whole new world to another idea of anonymity-based terror: the creeper. My friends have had their hair played with, and have been “sweet-talked” on the metro by nameless men that they couldn’t escape until they needed to leave the train for their usual stop. Those men will never know the names of my friends, and my friends will never know who those stupid men were. Those men get to hide behind the mask of anonymity that is the metro. I digress, the metro is no place to stand out. You use the metro to get from home to work, from Point A to Point B. You make your marks in other places, not in the metro. In the metro, on the streets, in your cars, you’re just another person in transit. You don’t have to actually be anyone or anything. You get to be anonymous for a little while every day.

4. Hang On, It’s a Bumpy Ride
The metro trains are covered in informational signs, one of which warns you about forceful breaking. This little sign says that you should hang onto one of the many handles all over the cars so that you don’t go flying whenever the train stops, regardless if that’s as it pulls into a station, or if it has to stop suddenly for whatever reason. This warning is always important no matter what state of mind you’re in; befuddled, calm, distressed, distraught, distracted (but you shouldn’t be if you’re taking #8 to heart), happy, sad… inebriated… you should definitely be braced up against something in that tiny little car in case something you can’t see coming happens. When I’ve been completely on top of my game, and the metro has stopped “normally,” even I have a tendency to get knocked a little off balance. We may all have our tips and tricks to try to beat the system (mine is to bend my knees to lower my center of gravity, and engage my abdominal muscles to keep from moving too much), but nothing works much better than to take the given advice and to hang on for dear life. I’ve been on a car that’s stopped abruptly (during rush hour, too), and four people went flying forward, landing flat on their faces. The metro painfully reminds us to “hold on tight,” and to have a little plan of action in case things don’t go the way we planned since you can’t always see what’s up ahead and around the corner.

3. Get By with a Little Help from Your Friends
This one stems off of #4 a little bit. Whenever someone asks “how tall are you” I always reply “short.” During rush hour, I usually end up getting a little distressed since there are things to hang onto in the center of the trains (which is where I somehow always end up)… but they’re too high up for me to comfortably reach. In other cases, I’ve been too far away from any sort of metro-provided “handle” to hang onto during the ride. This is why having a “metro-buddy” is always a good thing. Kyle (for example) can reach the “tall-person” handles, so he’ll usually let me hang onto his arm as a “short-person” handle when we’re traveling together. In other cases, sometimes Sheila or another one of my friends will have been able to grab a metro-provided handle, and I can hang onto their arms as a kind of “extension cord.” Two of you and only one seat opened up? No problem! That’s what lap-sitting is for! Besides, as we covered in #9, personal space doesn’t exist, and you know each other, so it’s much less awkward in this situation! There’s only so much you can do alone, having friends around to help you out is never a bad thing. Embrace your friends, let them “scratch your back” (or hang onto them on the metro) and you’ll “scratch their backs” later on.

2. When in Doubt, Be Polite
On every metro train, there are a certain number of stationary seats (as in not strapontins, the folding seats right by the doors) that are “reserved” for certain kinds of people, namely injured war veterans, the blind, the elderly, people traveling with children under four, or pregnant women. If you’re sitting in a reserved seat and you don’t fall under one of those categories, you’re supposed to give that seat up if someone who does fall under one of those categories gets on the train. How do I know that’s how it’s supposed to be? There’s a sign that says all that right over those seats (sensing a trend here, yet?). Very rarely do people ever ask for your seat on the train, but it’s always nice to offer it to someone when they look like they need it. I’ve offered my seat to a couple older women on the train a couple times, to which they’ve smiled and said “non, merci, t’inquiete!” (no thanks, don’t worry) so I got to keep my seat, but I got some good karma for trying. However, there’s a “wrong” way to offer your seat to someone. I got on a train once to have a man smack my arm and ask me if I wanted to sit down in his seat, to which I replied “non, merci” and continued standing. He smacked the arm of three other women before giving up. Just like there’s a proper manner of offering your seat, there’s a manner of asking for a seat as well. When you’re my age, you shouldn’t be asking for someone’s spot on the train unless you’re near passing out for whatever reason. No one’s ever asked me for my seat on the train, but a couple of my friends have told me about youngish people asking them to give up their seats, which they’ve awkwardly done, but there’s definitely that idea of “if I have to think about if you deserve my seat or not, you probably don’t deserve it.” It’s always good to be polite and to maintain an air of politeness as you go about your day-to-day life. Even if all of your polite gestures aren’t accepted, you’ll gain some karma points for trying, won’t you?

1. We Are All Equal in the Eyes of the RATP
This one ties in with #5 a little. Just like you lose your identity while you take the metro, you lose the importance that may follow your name, or you gain some importance that you don’t normally have. I’m a lowly étudiante, but when I take the metro, I have the same “value” as Barack Obama, Pauline Croze, or Lady Gaga. I realize none of them would ever actually take the metro, but if they did, you better believe the doors would still slam shut on their heads if they took too long to decide if they wanted to get on the train or not, and the driver of the metro would not wait an extra minute before leaving a station if they knew that they were around and should be taking the train soon. The train waits for no one. We’re all going to get tossed around like change in a purse every once in a while. We’re all going to have to give up our seat every once in a while (regardless if it’s by choice or because we’re “supposed to”), and we’re all probably going to get half-sat on more than once in our lives. These things happen no matter who you are, no matter if you’re going to get famous, if you were famous and you’ve fallen out of the spotlight, or if you’re never going to be famous and have no interest in being famous. Level of celebrity isn’t the only thing that applies here, of course, but if you were to cut all of us open, we all look the same on the inside (certain exceptions accounted for). That’s the biggest lesson that the metro can teach us. No matter how you slice it, and how you may want to try to judge each other, when you use the metro as a judge, we’re all created equal, and we should treat each other that way.

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